“Perfect day for a ride. Mind if I join you?”
Merlin almost fell out of the saddle when Arthur appeared, seemingly from nowhere, sidling his horse up next to Merlin’s.
“Arthur, what are you doing here?”
It wasn’t that Merlin didn’t welcome the company; the past two days had been spent in solitude as he rode toward Ealdor. It was, however, highly unusual to find Arthur this far from the citadel unaccompanied.
“Sometimes a king needs to get away from the burdens of governance to rest and clear his head. I’ve heard Ealdor is a nice, quiet village, at the peak of its beauty in the summer so I thought…”
“You can’t come with me.”
“First, you do kind of have a job, an important one.”
“I left Guinevere, Leon, and Gaius in charge.”
“All three of them?”
“I created a temporary ruling council – I think it’s well-balanced.”
On that point, Merlin couldn’t argue.
“Second, I’m going to take care of my mother’s farm while she’s visiting a friend in another village. It’s not really a holiday.”
“That’s fine. I can help you with the chores. I once had a dream of renouncing the throne and running off to become a farmer. This can be a way for me to try it out.”
“Do you even know what kind of work happens on a farm?”
“The farming kind?”
“Please go home. You’ll only get in the way. And besides, the villagers would be scandalized if they saw King Arthur laboring in the fields. They’re standoffish enough since I moved to Camelot. I don’t need another reason for them to criticize me.”
Arthur didn’t need to know that part of that distance also came from the fact that even before being named manservant to the then-prince, Merlin had stood out from the rest of the village children for a very different reason.
“They won’t even know it’s me. Look, I borrowed some of your clothes.”
In his surprise at Arthur’s sudden arrival, Merlin hadn’t paid attention to the very familiar tunic and breeches he was wearing. The fabric was snug in places, accentuating Arthur’s muscles rather nicely, even if the fit did look somewhat uncomfortable.
“You do realize you’re wearing my best clothes. If you mess those up…”
“I’ll replace them. Honestly, Merlin, you need new clothes. I was sorting through your things and it’s disappointing how little attention you give your appearance.”
A brief wave of terror shook Merlin – had Arthur also found the grimoire hidden under his winter cloak? He couldn’t have, not and still be so personable. It didn’t matter that Arthur was implementing a gradual reversal of the magic ban. Merlin had lied too long to confess.
“Yes, well, we don’t all have a royal budget for clothes.”
“Which is a good thing at the moment, because it means I can blend in as a servant, a friend from Camelot accompanying you home.”
“I’m pretty sure they’ll recognize you anyway. You were the center of attention for days when you organized the fight against Kanen.”
“That was years ago, Merlin. I seriously doubt anyone remembers what I look like after all this time.”
It was clear that Arthur had little familiarity with the workings of a small village – memories were long because it was rare that anything memorable happened. A face could easily be forgotten in the hustle and bustle of Camelot – generations of Ealdor parents would likely tell their children the story of the golden-haired prince who once saved the village.
“I don’t know, Arthur. I don’t think…”
“It doesn’t matter what you think, because I’m going. Now come along.”
Sighing, Merlin nudged his horse and followed Arthur.
They reached Ealdor just before midnight, the late hour excusing Merlin from having to explain his companion to the neighbors.
The last mile or so they had bickered over who would get to sleep in the lone bed.
“It’s my mother’s house.”
“Yes, but I’m the king.”
“But no one is supposed to know that.”
“Fine. Then I’m the guest.”
“The uninvited guest.”
The matter still hadn’t been resolved when they entered the dark cottage.
“Let me light a candle,” Merlin said, “It’s warm enough to skip a fire.”
The faint light from the flame revealed the note his mother had left him.
“Turns out neither of us will get the bed. A neighbor is making her a new bedtick after the old one got destroyed.”
“What was your mother up to that ruined her bed?”
“Shut up. There was an incident with the neighbor’s children and a forbidden puppy. To hide it from their parents, they left it in her house while she was out working.”
“Does that mean we’ll both be sleeping on the floor?”
“Think of it like camping with the knights. I’ll lay out the bedrolls.”
Merlin began the task. It was so late that he didn’t really mind sleeping on the ground, even if it was hard as a rock.
“Move them closer,” Arthur said.
“You’ve put the bedrolls too far apart. I don’t know my way around your mother’s home, so I’ll need you close by.”
Arthur’s explanation made little sense – the house had one room and it wasn’t all that large. Still, Merlin reasoned, maybe he was worried about bumping into the table or something. It wasn’t as though Merlin minded the close proximity.
“Is this better?”
“Good. Now go to sleep. We’re going to have an early start in the morning.”
Arthur drifted off almost as soon as his head hit the improvised pillow. It took Merlin longer, the reality of the situation threatening to drown him with contentment. He was lying less than an arms’ length away the man he secretly loved, in a house that was, at least for the week, essentially their own.
Was it wrong to want domesticity rather than destiny?
Merlin decided not to worry about it and instead let the sound of Arthur’s breathing carry him off to sleep.
It was obscene how quickly morning arrived. Though many chickens lived within the walls of Camelot, they were confined to areas far from Merlin’s window in the castle. With a mixture of annoyance and nostalgia, the sounds of his mother’s flock pulled Merlin from his sleep.
“The sun isn’t even up,” Arthur grumbled as Merlin roused him.
“You’re the one who wanted to play at farming,” Merlin replied. “Now get up. We have a lot to do today.”
Breakfast was a simple affair. Hunith had left bread and cheese and Merlin was grateful to not have to prepare a meal while sleep deprived.
As they ate, Merlin went over the list of chores they would have to complete.
Livestock would need tending to. Hunith kept a flock of chickens, plus a goat and a cow who had a month-old calf. There were also the two Camelot horses they’d brought with them. Since it was summer, they could be let out to graze, but even with the animals in the field, there was still the barn to muck, water troughs to fill, and eggs to gather. And that was just the start of the work.
The vegetable garden had to be weeded and fertilized. More firewood needed to be chopped. Hunith had also left a repair list, asking Merlin to mend a section of fence and patch a leak in the roof. No doubt she had anticipated Merlin being able to use his magic for those tasks.
“And we’ll need to do laundry since we don’t have that many changes of clothes,” Merlin added.
“Do we have to do it all today?”
“Some things, like taking care of the animals, have to be done every day, but others can be spread out over the week. We should probably get started.”
Much to Merlin’s surprise, Arthur tried his best to carry out the tasks as instructed, with some notable success. Countless hours of swinging maces and broadswords had built his arms for chopping firewood.
Other aspects of farm life proved more challenging. A headbutt from the goat almost knocked Arthur to the ground, while the cow made it perfectly clear that she did not want him trying to milk her.
Merlin’s warning came with just enough time for Arthur to dodge her hoof.
“Maybe I should do the milking. She knows me.”
There was no need to mention that his magic helped keep her calm.
An hour later, Merlin laughed until he choked as a rooster called Barnabus chased Camelot’s formidable warrior-king away from the chickencoop.
“You’re going to spend the rest of your life in the stocks if you don’t help me,” Arthur threatened as he ran past, Barnabus in hot pursuit.
“It’s safe to come out now,” Merlin said after he composed himself enough to wrangle the rooster away from the front door and back to the coop. “Maybe he’ll like you better tomorrow.”
“No, you can care for the chickens from here on out. I’ll take the horses but only because they’re from Camelot and are civilized. These country animals are a menace.”
Livestock dealt with, it was time to focus on horticulture.
“Oh that’s disgusting!” Arthur exclaimed when Merlin explained the relationship between the dung heap and the garden. “We’re seriously going to spread that where the food grows?”
“It’s what makes the food grow, you numpty. The plants need to be fertilized.”
“Yes, but isn’t there a more sanitary option? I’m sure that in Camelot, we use…”
“Cow shit. It’s pretty standard.”
“That’s it. You’re also on fertilizer duty for the duration.”
“Since I’m tending to the animals and the crops, what exactly will your duties be?”
“I’ll keep your mother stocked on firewood through winter. Or I could just buy her a house in Camelot. We could head back right now to pick it out.”
“It’s ok if you want to leave,” Merlin said, trying to keep disappointment out of his voice. “Spreading manure isn’t really...”
“All that bad if you have good company,” Arthur finished. “Why don’t you tell me ridiculous stories from your childhood as a distraction?”
As the sun began to set, they collapsed on the front stoop, leaning against the door to the house.
“I don’t think I’ve ever been this filthy,” Arthur said.
He had a point, Merlin conceded. They were both covered in a mixture of sweat, mud, and general grime, with a bit of manure thrown in for added measure.
“I think it’s worse than the time I fell in the bog.”
“Definitely,” Arthur replied. “You smell worse. Still, I call first bath.”
“If you want a bath, we’ll have to haul water from the well.”
“We already did that this morning.”
“Yes, but it wasn’t enough to fill a washtub.”
“I see. So no bath then.”
Merlin thought about this. He was too tired to fetch water, but they were in no state to enter his mother’s home.
“There is another option, if you’re feeling adventurous.”
“Will it get me clean without making endless trips to the well?”
“Then let’s do it.”
Merlin carefully ducked inside the house to grab a few things they would need, then it was only a short walk across the pasture to the nearby stream.
“You’re going in fully dressed?” Arthur asked when Merlin removed his boots but nothing else.
“My clothes need a wash and so do yours. We can strip down in the water.”
If the full truth was told, Merlin hadn’t fully thought through this plan. Only a few minutes before, it had seemed like an easy way to get clean. Even though he had brought extra clothing for them to change into, his brain hadn’t fully registered that they would both end up stripping down in the stream.
It’s not a big deal, he tried to tell himself.
Afterall, he’d seen Arthur unclothed countless times over the years. That was a hazard – benefit, screamed a dangerous part of his mind – of serving. But he couldn’t recall a time where he had been fully undressed around Arthur. There were a few instances when Arthur had seen him without a tunic, but never missing his smallclothes.
They were friends. Friends went swimming together all the time. It only had to be awkward if Merlin made it that way. There was no reason for Arthur to know that Merlin’s mind had played out several dreams over the years where the two of them wound up naked together in a body of water, splashing about, yes, though not in a way that one could really classify as swimming.
Not the best time to think about that, Merlin chided himself.
“The water feels amazing,” Arthur said as he followed Merlin.
It really did. After a long day of hard work, it was soothing to let the stream wash away the muck and the grime.
“It pools up over here,” Merlin called, “and gets deep enough to soak.”
The sun had long since set, but bright moonlight made it easy to see where they were going. Nothing dangerous lived in the stream and the current wasn’t strong enough to sweep anyone away. Slightly cooler than bathwater, it was the perfect end to the day.
“Alright,” Merlin said after a bit, “our clothes are probably as clean as they’re going to get.”
He peeled away the wet fabric, as Arthur did the same.
“Wring them out and throw them on the bank.”
A few loud splats meant that laundry had been dealt with.
“I’m going to dunk my hair. Make sure I come back up or you’ll be facing Barnabus alone tomorrow.”
“Your safety is my top priority,” Arthur assured him.
Just under the surface, Merlin looked up at the stars and the moon filtering through the water, the burden of destiny washing away along with the dirt. For the first time in as long as he could remember, Merlin relaxed.
“You took your time,” Arthur said when he finally resurfaced. “I was starting to think you needed a rescue.”
“The sky was so lovely, I couldn’t bear to stop looking at it.”
As soon as the words left his mouth, he knew he’d made a mistake. There was no way Arthur would let such a comment slide. He braced himself for an onslaught of insults about how much of a girl he was. They never arrived.
“It is quite stunning,” Arthur said, glancing up. “You always complained about Ealdor being dull and sleepy, but never told me how beautiful it could be. I’m not sure that it’s possible for this night to get more idyllic.”
It was so uncharacteristic for Arthur to simply appreciate beauty that Merlin wasn’t sure of how to respond. Something about Arthur’s tone made his chest swell with affection in a way that he wasn’t sure he could handle, not if he was meant to walk home beside the man.
“Don’t forget to wash your hair,” Merlin said, trying to keep his voice steady.
They lingered a while longer, not saying much, just relishing the tranquil evening.
“I don’t suppose there’s anything ready to eat?” Arthur finally asked. “As much as I’d love to stay here all night, I’m going to fall over if I don’t find some food.”
“We’ll scrounge up something,” Merlin said as they made their way up the bank of the stream.
A warm breeze helped dry Merlin’s skin as he sorted through the basket of clothes he’d brought from inside the house. They’d come to an unspoken arrangement to deliberately avoid looking one another as they stood in the moonlight.
“Here,” Merlin said, shoving a bundle of clothing in Arthur’s general direction. “You’ll have to make do with one of my older tunics for the time being.”
“How can you stand to wear this?” Arthur complained. “It’s so itchy.”
“Do you want to trade?”
“No, it’s fine. At least it smells like you.”
Unsure of what that meant, Merlin said nothing and instead busied himself with collecting their wet clothes from where they’d thrown them.
They walked in an easy silence back to the house where Merlin assembled a simple meal from the provisions he’d packed from Camelot. They inhaled the food, then settled into their bedrolls.
“Does your mother do all of this every day? By herself?”
“A lot of it. The other villagers help her.”
“They must be very generous.”
“On the whole they are. Plus she trades them eggs or the fabric she weaves so it evens out. I send most of my wages back to her and that helps, too.”
“Which explains the state of your clothes.”
“The money is the least I can do since I’m not here to take care of her.”
“I should set up a monthly stipend for her. She deserves it for having put up with you through childhood and adolescence.”
“Shut up. I wasn’t that bad.”
“Merlin, it has taken me the better part of a decade to tame you. Let me do this thing for your mother.”
“You really mean it?”
“Of course I mean it. She’s treated me more like a mother than anyone else I’ve known.”
“She won’t simply take the money.”
“Stubbornness must be a family trait. Still, it is hard to get good eggs in Camelot these days. It’s a shame that I have to import them from Ealdor, but it is a burden that I must bear.”
“Thank you,” Merlin said softly. “I worry about her and…”
“Do you regret leaving her?”
“You say it like I had a choice. She practically shoved me out the door and down the road to Camelot.”
Merlin fell silent. So many years ago, he’d lain on this same floor and had danced around a similar question from Arthur. At the time, he hadn’t been able to answer it properly because Uther was king and the ban on sorcery was in full force. Now, even with Gaius helping Arthur rewrite those laws, Merlin found he still couldn’t give a truthful response. Arthur might be learning to accept magic, but lying for over a decade? There was no way Merlin could expect forgiveness.
“You’re trying to be interesting again,” Arthur said, apparently also remembering that conversation from years before.
“Just lost in thought.”
“So you’re not going to tell me. Hunith probably sent you away because the other villagers labeled you a clumsy menace and threatened to banish you for your incessant prattle.”
“Something like that.”
“Whatever happened, it wasn’t right. Home should be the one place where people can be themselves, where they don’t have to hide.”
If only you knew how much I’ve hidden, Merlin thought.
“Anyway,” Merlin said, trying to change the subject, “what did you think of your first day of farming?”
“It was very eye-opening. I had no idea that roosters were so ferocious, and I still think rural people have strange notions about how to make the plants grow. I can’t remember ever having been more exhausted. But…”
“I can think of worse ways to spend the time. Now sleep. I’ve been told we have to do it all again tomorrow.”
The week passed rapidly, the subsequent days filled in much the same manner as the first.
Daily chores were interspersed with some of the repair projects Hunith had requested. Arthur had never mended a fence or patched a roof, but he was willing to follow directions without question, something Merlin hadn’t expected.
“There. I did it!”
Merlin could only smile at how proud Camelot’s king appeared to have repaired a section of the fence.
They spent their evenings relaxing in the stream. Merlin’s initial awkwardness had passed after the first night. He stuck to their unspoken agreement not to look at each other while getting dressed in the moonlight, though on more than one occasion he could have sworn he felt Arthur’s gaze as he bent over to retrieve his breeches.
It’s all in my head, Merlin decided.
And they shared meals. Merlin bit his tongue to hold back a barb when Arthur insisted on learning at least some of the basics of cooking.
“I feel so useless,” Arthur explained. “If you left, I wouldn’t be able to feed myself.”
“Then I’ll make sure never to go.”
Merlin had meant for it to come out as a joke, but the way Arthur met his eyes suggested he’d come very close to letting his other secret spill.
If the stew was a bit singed on the second night, well, that only added flavor.
On the fourth day they had one encounter with a neighbor. Oliver had lived with his wife on the adjacent farm since before Merlin was born. The man had a reputation in the village for being nosy, so it was only a matter of time before he made his way over to investigate what was happening next door.
“You look familiar,” the gravelly voice said. “Have you been here before?”
“Only once, many years ago. My name is Arthur.”
Damn it, Merlin thought as he hurried toward them. The last thing they needed was a run-in with the founding member of the Ealdor gossip society.
“Arthur from Camelot?” the man asked in a stunned tone as he averted his eyes. Merlin feared he might kneel.
“Oh yes. I work in the castle with Merlin. It’s nice to meet you, Mister…”
“Oliver.” The man whispered out his name as he stared at Arthur’s proffered hand.
“Hi Oliver, it’s great to see you” Merlin lied as he reached them. “Have you met Arthur? He’s, um, another servant and he came to help me look after the farm until my mother gets back.”
“A servant?” Oliver asked.
“Not a very good one,” Arthur replied. “I’d be lost without Merlin to help me.”
“But he looks just like…”
“Adara’s oldest son? I know! They’re practically identical.”
Oliver considered this. He didn’t appear entirely convinced.
“Anyway,” Merlin continued a little too loudly, “it’s time for us to do that thing. The one we have to do together. Indoors. We’ll see you later, Oliver.”
“There was no need to be rude,” Arthur said after Merlin dragged him inside the house, slamming the door behind them.
“Another minute of you two talking and everyone in a fifty-mile radius would know that King Arthur was slumming it in Ealdor. Couldn’t you at least have told him a different name?”
“He caught me by surprise and I didn’t think about it. Does it bother you for people to know that I’m here with you?”
“Of course not. It’s just that if people find out who you are, word will spread. You might be in danger.
“Good thing you’re here to protect me.”
That was a strange response, considering that Arthur usually chided Merlin for hiding when they faced a run in with mercenaries or bandits. Merlin decided to ignore it. There was no way Arthur could know just how many times he’d actually been casting protective spells from behind trees.
“And we’d never get any peace. Even if the assassins stayed away, everyone and their grandmother would show up to see you.”
“I knew it. You want me all to yourself.”
More than you will ever know, Merlin thought.
“Yes, but only so I have help with this chore list. Now let’s sneak out the back so we can finish the work.”
The seventh morning Merlin awoke to the sound of heavy rain on the roof instead of Barnabus’s screeching.
“Time to get up?” Arthur asked as Merlin extracted himself from his bedroll.
“Only for me. I need to take care of the animals, but the rain’s coming down too hard to do anything outdoors. You should sleep a little longer.”
He took his time completing the chores. There was no need to rush today and it was pleasant to visit with the animals. It reminded him of carefree mornings from childhood, long before destinies and dragons tried to dictate his days.
When Merlin finally returned to the house, he found Arthur had gotten up on his own.
“I borrowed one of your mother’s cloaks to fetch the water and cooked us breakfast,” Arthur said. “I tried to remember your instructions for porridge but if it’s not right…”
“I’m sure it’s perfect. Let’s eat.”
The porridge was by all accounts the best thing Arthur had cooked all week.
“Will you keep giving me lessons when we get back to Camelot?” Arthur asked as they cleaned up from breakfast. “I know it seems stupid because there’s the castle kitchens but…”
“Well, I suppose I could. We can’t have you unprepared if you ever do decide to run off to be a farmer. Plus you can impress the knights the next time we’re out on a mission.”
Merlin would give cooking lessons every day for the rest of his life to keep Arthur smiling at him like that.
Dishes washed, they began preparing the meal for that night, a soup that would need to simmer for several hours. Working together, it didn’t take long to finish.
“We should tidy up the house so my mother doesn’t come home to a mess. The note said to expect her either today or tomorrow.”
“Do you think she’ll be upset that I’m here?”
“Of course not. She’ll be thrilled to see you.”
“Now what?” Arthur asked when the neatening was complete.
“Now we relax. I think we’ve earned it after everything we did this week.”
They sat at Hunith’s table. Why Arthur chose to sit on the bench next to him rather the one opposite, Merlin wasn’t sure, but he wasn’t going to say anything that might cause Arthur to move.
“It’s really coming down,” Merlin said as the rain picked up. “I’m glad we didn’t wait on patching the roof.”
“If I recall correctly, it was my idea to start on it early. Although I hope I wasn’t too much in the way.”
“Actually, it was nice to have the company and you were getting the hang of it by the end. We’ll make a farmer out of you yet.”
“Maybe,” Arthur laughed. “When we came here all those years ago to fight off Kanen, you said I’d hate it here. But after this week…”
“Yes?” Merlin said, turning to face him. As he twisted his body, their knees bumped under the table.
“It’s not so bad. If things were different, I think I could have lived a good life here. In a house like this…”
“You have a castle.”
“Yes, but it’s not really mine, is it? I may be the king, but the castle belongs to the people. And to an extent, I do as well. I know that village life can be hard and that I’m very lucky. But to have a place entirely my own, where I could just exist without having to be responsible for everyone…”
“You’d get bored.”
“Not with the right company.”
Arthur held his gaze as he said the words.
For years Merlin had carefully guarded his two greatest secrets. Now, sitting in his mother’s house on a rainy summer evening, lost in Arthur’s eyes after a week of extreme domesticity, he didn’t realize that his defenses were failing until it was too late.
Arthur’s eyes went wide when Merlin brought their lips together, his gasp audible above the driving rain hitting the roof. Any doubts Merlin might have had were erased as Arthur pressed into him, deepening the kiss. Relieved that he hadn’t made a horrific mistake, Merlin closed his eyes, overwhelmed by the realization that Arthur wanted this as much as he did. Warm lips parted, welcoming him in. It was too much - a tremor shook his body.
For years Merlin had dreamed of kissing Arthur, his mind playing out scenarios where such a thing might be permitted – a moment of panic before battle or a token of affection before Merlin went out on one more suicide mission.
Not once had he dared to imagine such a soft moment bringing them together.
Hesitantly, he let his palm rest against Arthur’s cheek, skin burning under his touch. Arthur shuddered, then strong fingers gripped his wrist, holding his hand firmly in place, while an arm wrapped around his shoulders.
The banging on the front door caused Merlin to jerk back, almost pulling Arthur off the bench.
“Merlin! Are you in there? Can you help me with the door?”
He hurried to let his mother in.
“This rain is miserable,” Hunith said as she entered the house, “but at least I remembered to pack one of your father’s old leather cloaks. Even after all these years it’s still waterproof thanks to his ma… magnificent tanning techniques. Hello, Arthur.”
“Hi, Hunith. I hope you don’t mind that I came along.”
It was rare to see a shy Arthur Pendragon. Merlin did his best to bite back a smile.
“Of course not. Someone has to keep Merlin out of trouble. Now get over here, the both of you.”
She held them tightly, pulling Arthur to her just as she did Merlin. When Arthur’s body stiffened in response, Merlin fought back the surge of rage he felt toward Uther, and instead squeezed his mother while also extending an arm around Arthur. A couple of seconds passed, then Merlin felt Arthur do the same, relaxing into the hug.
“Something smells amazing,” Hunith said when she finally let go. “What are you cooking?”
“Soup. It should be ready. Arthur helped make it.”
“I’ve been getting lessons from Merlin,” Arthur explained. “And he showed me how to care for your garden. We patched your roof and mended your fence.”
“You made it through the entire list that I left? That’s impressive.”
Impressive without magic, Merlin thought, knowing exactly what his mother meant.
“Do you need me to fetch your bags?” he asked. “You didn’t bring anything in with you.”
“I left them at Adara’s. I stopped to see if her husband had finished with the bedtick. Since he hadn’t, she offered to let me stay at their house so I wouldn’t have to sleep on the floor. I wanted to eat with you before I went back for the night.”
Which means, Merlin thought, I’ll have one more night alone with Arthur.
Hunith stayed late into the night, catching up with Merlin and listening to tales of their adventures from the previous week.
She chided Merlin for the state of Arthur’s clothes.
“I can’t believe you gave Arthur that old tunic. I wouldn’t use it for animal bedding, much expect someone to wear it.”
She praised the food – Merlin had a suspicion that she might have embellished a little, but that was alright, especially since it made Arthur blush to hear her compliments.
Hunith nearly fell out of her chair laughing as Merlin described Arthur’s initial encounter with Barnabus.
“He is a mean one,” she conceded when she was finally able to speak.
“The cow isn’t all that friendly either,” Arthur added. “She would have taken my head off if Merlin hadn’t been there to warn me.”
“Just wait until the knights find out,” Merlin said. “I bet Gwaine will…”
“Never know. Because you’re not going to tell him.”
“I suppose I could remain silent on the matter. If you give me a day off.”
“You’ve already had a week off.”
“I worked the whole time.”
“It’s not my fault that you choose to spend your free time communing with farm animals and rolling in the cow’s…”
“Boys!” Hunith interrupted, “I have had a long day of riding and really want to go to sleep. Let me say good night and then I’ll leave you to your negotiations.”
“So,” said Arthur after Hunith left.
“Right,” replied Merlin.
He had hoped that once they were alone, perhaps they could pick up from where they’d left off, but Arthur refused to make eye contact with him. Not that Merlin was doing that great of a job of making a move, doubt now clouding his head.
He knew Arthur had enjoyed the kiss at the time – his reaction had been nothing but enthusiastic. Was he now regretting it? They were supposed to leave for Camelot the next day. Would Arthur want to simply pretend it had never happened?
“We should clean up from dinner,” Arthur suggested. “It would be rude to leave dirty dishes for your mother.”
“Good idea,” Merlin replied, relieved to have a distraction from his spiral of uncertainty.
“It’s strange,” Arthur said when they finally climbed into their bedrolls. “I think your mother likes me better than you.”
“Why do you say that?”
“She hugged me longer when she left.”
“She did not.”
“I’m pretty sure she did. And there’s the matter of the chore list she left you.”
“What about it?”
“It was rather extensive. I was thinking about all of the work she wanted done. We got through everything because there were two of us. If you had been alone…”
“Then I wouldn’t have had you slowing me down.”
“Maybe on the first day. But after that…”
“I’m very efficient.”
“Merlin, no one is that efficient, especially not you. Unless you have some special talent for farm work that I’m not aware of.”
Merlin’s stomach dropped, any hope for spending the night in Arthur’s arms fading. He tried to think of an explanation or a joke, anything to move the conversation along and divert Arthur from this line of inquiry. He was well-versed in lying, yet in this moment he couldn’t think of any reply that might seem plausible.
“I only mention it because of something I read in a book I found last week,” Arthur said, breaking the silence. “Did you know that much of the work we did could be completed faster by using magic?”
Merlin swallowed hard but said nothing, trying to stay calm by focusing on the sound of rain hitting the roof.
“Obviously,” Arthur continued, “one would have to be a skilled sorcerer to master all the necessary spells. It would probably take years of practice. But those spells would be useful to know, especially if one were left alone on a farm with too much work and not enough time. Wouldn’t they?”
Throughout his life, Merlin had been in extreme danger on more occasions than he could remember. It was part of protecting Arthur. In all the years of hiding from Uther, facing down vindictive sorcerers, and keeping run-of-the-mill assassins at bay, not once had Merlin ever been so subsumed with fear as in that moment.
He couldn’t respond because he couldn’t breathe. Willing his limbs to move was out of the question. All he could do was lay in the dark and wait for Arthur’s judgment.
There was the rustle of fabric, then the gentle pressure of a hand on his shoulder.
“I know, Merlin,” Arthur said softly, warm breath ghosting across Merlin’s ear. “I’ve known for years.”
Everything in Arthur’s behavior suggested comfort rather than condemnation, but Merlin still couldn’t speak.
“I meant what I said the other night. Home is the one place you shouldn’t have to hide who you are. I want to build a home with you, or rather, build on to the one we already have. And I think you might want the same thing.”
Arthur fell silent, as if waiting for something. So it wasn’t just Merlin who had been experiencing doubt that night.
“I do,” Merlin managed to whisper.
“Good,” Arthur said, obvious relief in his voice, “but before we go further, I need you to know that you can trust me. With everything. I’ve been waiting for you to tell me, especially after I started changing the laws. But you never did. And when I was looking for clothes to borrow from you, I found a book of spells you’d hidden in your cupboard. It made me think – if it’s not the law you’re afraid of, then it has to be me. And I am so very sorry.”
Oh gods. Was that what Arthur thought? Merlin felt the familiar urge to protect him.
“No. There’s no reason for you to apologize. I’m the one who lied.”
“With good reason.”
“Maybe once, but that’s not been true for a while.”
“Then why not say something?”
“After so many years of lying, it was easier to stay silent. There’s no way you could forgive me for…”
“There’s nothing to forgive. You’ve done so much for me. You deserve recognition.”
“That’s not what I want.”
“Then what do you want?”
Arthur inhaled deeply before Merlin felt warm lips against his cheek.
“Then I’m yours,” Arthur whispered. He shifted so that his face hovered above Merlin’s, their chests pressed together.
The whimper wasn’t dignified, but Merlin was past caring. The weight of Arthur’s body was the only thing that mattered.
“And I think it stands to reason,” Arthur murmured, pausing to kiss Merlin’s forehead, his eyelids, the tip of his nose, “that you’re mine.”
“Always,” he gasped just before Arthur’s lips found his.
There was no hesitancy this time, no awkwardness. Just the two of them crashing together, years of longing finally set free. Merlin let his hands run along the body covering him, bunching up the fabric of Arthur’s tunic. The feel of warm skin under his palms was good, but it wasn’t enough. He tried to drag it over Arthur’s head without breaking the kiss, creating a tangle in the process.
Arthur laughed, then sat up to pull it off before lifting Merlin from the floor with him.
“Better?” he asked as he stripped off Merlin’s tunic.
“Much,” Merlin said, as Arthur eased him back on the bedroll.
It was dark in the house, the rainy night obscuring any moonlight that might have filtered through the windows. Still, the coals glowing in the hearth provided just enough light for Merlin to hold Arthur’s gaze.
“So beautiful,” he said, tracing a finger along Arthur’s jaw.
“As are you.”
He was trapped beneath Arthur’s body, the full weight pinning his hips against the ground. Merlin held Arthur tight, reveling in the sensation of bare skin against his own.
Then Arthur resumed the kiss, doing something so obscene with his tongue that Merlin’s thighs bucked up despite the pressure of Arthur bearing down on him.
Oh gods. Arthur was hard. Very hard. Not that Merlin wasn’t. But knowing that he could have that effect on Arthur… it threatened to undo him.
Clumsily he fumbled with their breeches. He could loosen the laces, but his position made it impossible to free either of them from the fabric. Instead, he let his fingers wander, exploring as much of Arthur’s body as he could reach.
He was rewarded with a groan.
“All week long,” Arthur hissed, pausing to trail kisses down his neck, “you’ve been teasing me in the stream.”
“I did no such thing,” Merlin tried to keep his voice steady but failed, panting as Arthur’s mouth moved across his chest, down his ribs, then lower. “If anyone was teasing, it was you. Like you’re doing right now.”
“I’ll show you teasing,” Arthur growled, sitting up and grabbing at Merlin’s legs.
His body slid forward, breeches refusing to cooperate with Arthur’s efforts to remove them.
“You’re as bad as the cow,” Arthur muttered as Merlin nearly kicked him the face in an attempt to help.
“Hush. Make yourself useful and light the candle. I need to see you.”
Merlin started to rise when a strong hand pushed his shoulder back to the bedroll.
“Aren’t you meant to be a sorcerer?”
It was a simple spell to conjure the flame – hardly impressive in comparison to the complex magic he’d used to keep Arthur safe over the years. Yet, Arthur was looking down at him as though he had fought off an army or moved mountains.
Merlin tried to stay calm as Arthur’s gaze traveled the length of his body. There was a hitch in Arthur’s breathing, accompanied by a hard swallow, as he stared at Merlin’s very obvious sign of arousal.
When Arthur’s eyes met his own, shining with an intensity so full of love and wonder, it took all of Merlin’s self-control to not look away. After so many years of hiding, it was both terrifying and exhilarating to lie before Arthur, completely exposed.
“Now yours,” Merlin said, gesturing at Arthur’s breeches, using the brief distraction to recover.
“It’s not like it’s anything you haven’t seen before.”
Merlin had known him long enough to recognize the false nonchalance in Arthur’s voice. In spite of everything that had transpired between them that night, he was nervous.
“Yes, but this time I don’t have to pretend not to look.”
As he reclined on the bedroll, knees bent, he couldn’t help but smile at Arthur’s clumsy efforts at stripping off his remaining clothes.
“Well?” Arthur asked, deliberately avoiding Merlin’s eyes.
“You’re gorgeous,” Merlin whispered. “Absolutely perfect.”
Arthur let out a breath.
“Now stop fishing for compliments,” Merlin said, trying to lessen the tension, “and get back down here.”
Suddenly feeling brave, he let his knees fall apart.
“God have mercy,” Arthur whispered, returning to the floor.
Again Merlin was covered by Arthur’s body, this time with no layers of clothing between them. Which meant there was nothing to mitigate the sensation of Arthur’s cock sliding along his own.
Merlin gasped and thrust upward, desperate for more contact.
Arthur froze, eyes wide.
“Alright?” Merlin asked.
He got his answer as Arthur’s hips began to move, rocking into him. Everything faded – the rain, the hard floor, Camelot, destiny. Nothing remained but Arthur and the glide of their bodies, slick with sweat and desire.
Merlin clung to Arthur, sucking kisses into his neck and shoulders, his efforts interspersed with declarations of love.
“Yours… always for you… love you so much...”
Arthur silenced him with a deep kiss, his mouth warm and heavy. Merlin tried his best to match the pace of Arthur’s hips, grinding together, pressure building as Arthur slid against him.
It was almost too much.
And yet there was still something he wanted.
He released Arthur’s shoulder, moving his hand between their bodies. It wasn’t easy, what with the pressure from above and their frantic movements, but Merlin was determined.
Just a little bit further and… Oh gods! He was touching Arthur. His fingertips trailed down the shaft to the base, then teased back up, tracing along the head. Arthur let out a low groan, his hips moving faster. The movement was almost enough take Merlin apart. He bit his lip and tried to focus, wrapping his fingers around Arthur’s cock, then his own.
Arthur shifted, easing up to give Merlin better access, allowing him to tighten his grip, his wrist moving, working them both, all while Arthur continued to thrust.
Merlin was close, so very close – he tried to hold back, not wanting this to end. But when Arthur’s fingers closed over his own, his control faltered, body shuddering through his climax. All the while, Arthur refused to let go.
“Yours,” Merlin whispered into his skin, “always yours.”
That was all it took to push Arthur over the edge, his release spilling out as he collapsed onto Merlin, panting into his shoulder.
It should have been uncomfortable with the heat and humidity of the summer night. Breathing in the scent of Arthur’s hair, Merlin couldn’t remember ever having been more content.
“Sticky,” Arthur complained when he finally slid to the bedroll beside Merlin.
“Here,” Merlin said, passing him a discarded tunic.
He felt the cloth swipe over his stomach before Arthur tended to himself.
“You’re too far away,” Arthur explained as he jostled Merlin’s body. It took a minute to position themselves, finally settling with Merlin’s arm draped across Arthur’s chest, head resting on his shoulder.
“That’s better,” Arthur said, fidgeting with the blankets before returning Merlin’s embrace.
The downpour from earlier had slackened to a gentle shower, the sound so soft and soothing that Merlin couldn’t keep his eyes open.
Sleep had almost claimed him when Arthur’s voice broke the silence.
“Do you ever miss Ealdor?”
“It’s funny. People assume that kings have such freedom but so much of my life is already decided for me. There is part of me that wants to stay in this village forever. I can’t – tomorrow I have to go back to Camelot. But if you would rather stay… I understand. Ealdor is your home and I would never make you leave.”
On the whole, Arthur did a good job of keeping his voice steady but Merlin knew him well enough to hear the vulnerability underneath.
“You really are a cabbage head if you haven’t figured out that my home is where you are. It has been for years.”
The arms holding him tightened.
“Now rest. We have a long ride tomorrow. You can’t go nodding off in the saddle.”
“Rise and shine, lazy daisy!”
Was it really morning already? Merlin could have sworn he’d just nodded off but the sunlight streaming in the windows said otherwise.
“Come on, Merlin. Time to get up. The cow isn’t going to milk herself.”
The realization that it was his mother admonishing him while he was curled around Arthur, completely naked save for their shared blanket, was all it took to bring Merlin to full consciousness.
“I… um… we were…”
“Yes,” Hunith said laughing. “I can see that you were. I’ll give you boys a minute. Don’t worry about the livestock. I thought you might need a late morning so I had Adara’s son tend to them.”
As soon as the door closed, Merlin extracted himself from Arthur’s embrace and hurried into his clothes.
“Please tell me that I dreamed about your mother walking in on us and that it didn’t actually happen,” a sleepy voice mumbled from the floor.
“I can but it will be a lie.”
“In that case, please send word to Camelot that the king is dead from mortification.”
“Let’s get you dressed. Maybe if we cook breakfast for her, she’ll forget what she saw.”
Breakfast ended up being more of a late lunch because several villagers dropped by to visit once word spread about who had been staying in Hunith’s house.
“I knew he wasn’t a servant!” Oliver proclaimed to no one in particular. “And that boy had him working on the roof. It’s a disgrace. Hunith, I always told you your son was…”
“I’m afraid there’s been a misunderstanding,” Arthur cut in before Oliver could continue. “I came with Merlin to get a better sense of what village life is like for farmers so that I can make more informed policy decisions.”
This earned Arthur a round of applause and Oliver a few dirty looks. Then Arthur had to deal with a barrage of hands to be shaken, babies to be admired, and gifts of produce from local gardens. The king would apparently be eating leeks for the foreseeable future.
Eventually the stream of villagers departed, and Arthur and Merlin prepared to leave.
“You’re always welcome to visit in Camelot,” Arthur assured Hunith as they mounted their horses after she hugged them goodbye.
“I’d like that,” she said. “And you two can come back any time you’d like, though I think it might be for the best if you stay in an empty house. Mine is quite small.”
Merlin hoped that the heat of the day would give him a plausible excuse for the warmth he felt creeping across his face.
They had just made it out of the valley when Merlin turned to get one final look at the village below.
“Don’t worry. We’ll be back.”
“I know,” Merlin replied, taking the hand that Arthur offered. “Come on. Let’s go home.”